Chasing Kane

December 3, 2020

IN 1925, Herman J. Mankiewicz, theater critic and reporter for the New York Times and for the New Yorker in its first year, and the author of quite a few mostly failed Broadway plays, all of which qualified him for a seat at the Algonquin Round Table, received an invitation from MGM studios to move to Hollywood and be well paid to write for the movies. Pictures had not yet learned to talk, but soon they would, and in the meantime, Mankiewicz’s talent for narrative structure and succinct intertitles was in demand. Movie production, which until the end of World War I had been the work of hundreds of small independent companies, was, by the time Mankiewicz arrived in Los Angeles, consolidated within five Wall Street–financed studios, each with a few in-house producers (many of whom could barely put together a sentence) managing the talent. Despite the monetary rewards, Mankiewicz, a second-generation American whose immigrant father was a German-Jewish, late-blooming academic, was not proud of the work he was doing, and his drinking, compulsive gambling, and abrasive attitude got him fired from picture after picture. Still, as David Fincher, the director of Mank, noted in a recent interview, Mankiewicz is responsible for perhaps the greatest special effect in the history of the movies: During his brief stint as a writer for The Wizard of Oz, he suggested that Dorothy’s Kansas town be filmed in black-and-white and Oz in Technicolor.

Oz aside, Mankiewicz’s claim to film history is as coauthor with Orson Welles of Citizen Kane (1941), for which they shared an Academy Award for screenwriting, the only Oscar won by the movie, which many critics (not this writer) rank as the greatest ever made. Fincher’s father, Jack, believed that was the case, so when he retired from a career in journalism in the 1990s and said he wanted to write a screenplay, his son suggested that he focus on Mankiewicz. The elder Fincher died in 2003, leaving the script in limbo. Years later, Netflix, courting the director who himself had made two of the greatest films of the twenty-first century so far, Zodiac (2007) and The Social Network (2010), asked Fincher what he’d like to do as a follow-up to two seasons of Mindhunter (2017–19). Fincher dusted off Mank and discovered that the script was even more relevant than it was twenty years ago. A portrait of the eponymous screenwriter self-destructing during the 1930s—Hollywood’s “Golden Age”—and then briefly resurrecting himself by writing a film that skewers William Randolph Hearst, the yellow press magnate and Hollywood moneybags, Mank copies the flashback structure of Kane and its teasing throughout of a mystery it never completely solves. In Kane, that mystery is “Rosebud,” the word Kane whispers as he dies. The makers of the “March of Time”–styled documentary about Charles Foster Kane, which kicks off the narrative proper, go on a treasure hunt for the meaning of “Rosebud.” When they fail to find it, they save face by asking if any one word can sum up a man’s life. We in the audience, however, are privileged to see the evidence that the investigation overlooked—a child’s sled bearing the brand name “Rosebud” and an image of a flower burning with the trash, after all the good stuff from Xanadu, Kane’s California estate, has been auctioned off. This final sequence. has prompted generations of cinephiles and mystery buffs to take a second look at Kane in order to pinpoint the first time they see that sled. In graduate school, I wrote a paper analyzing the image of the preadolescent Kane, alone with Rosebud in a totally white field—the snow on the ground and falling from the sky blotting out the horizon line—in terms of D. W. Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object and how a successful passage through the liminal zone between childhood and adolescence requires its imaginary protection, especially if one’s mother is as unloving as Kane’s is. How brilliant, I wrote, was Welles’s direction in showing us not only the boy holding his sled but also placing him in the cinematic equivalent of the liminal, instead of doing the easier thing and setting the entire scene on the front porch where Rosebud would soon be wrenched away from Kane by the banker who would raise him, causing that bereft child to live on inside the adult megalomaniac, for whom no accumulation of power and wealth could replace what had been lost. But in fact, the description of the young Kane playing with his sled in the snow is in the shooting script that Mankiewicz wrote and gave to Welles, before the director and his cinematographer Gregg Toland planned out the shots.

I have no idea what a viewer who knows nothing about Citizen Kane would make of Mank. But it took me three viewings until I could see the movie in its own right as a sometimes brilliant, occasionally awkward, tonally uncertain attack on the entertainment industry, which, as dramatizations of history go, is somewhat accurate and also has contemporary resonance. Mank begins with a title explaining that at age twenty-four, “Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO pictures. . .He was given absolute creative autonomy. . .and could make a movie about any subject, with any collaborator he wished.” Since this is a movie about Mank (Gary Oldman), the collaborator Welles chose, and in Fincher’s film, Welles (Tom Burke) has very little screen time, it is unclear why Welles is the subject of this opening title. Perhaps this is the first of Fincher’s inside baseball gambits: Welles would never again be given absolute autonomy by any movie studio, but Fincher, nearly eighty years later, was given total control of Mank by Netflix, which has “lured” major directors away from the studios by offering them the artistic freedom and economic incentives that the studios do not.

In any case, the film is carried first shot to last by Oldman’s Mankiewicz, who appears immediately after the opening credits as a literally broken man. With one leg in a cast from foot to hip, he hobbles to a bed in the lonely desert ranch house that we soon learn Welles has rented for him, where flat on his back he will dictate the screenplay of American, eventually retitled Citizen Kane, to a patient stenographer/typist (Lily Collins), under the intermittent supervision of Welles’s partner John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who behaves more like a reform school principal than a storied theatrical producer. “Write what you know,” says Houseman, while leaving a crate of booze just out of Mank’s reach. Writing is hell, especially when one is being forced to dry out, and so are the low camera angles on Mank’s bloated, bleary-eyed face—Oldman’s performance is remarkable for its absence of vanity and the myriad ways in which he can make a line sound like he’s whistling past the graveyard. In Kane, each flashback is constructed from the point of view of a different character. In Mank, the entire film is dominated by Mankiewicz’s subjectivity—both the strand of the movie where he is writing and dictating and taking phone calls from Welles, who wants to know how the writing is going, and later from various people who try to persuade him to quit or at least keep his name off the script lest Hearst destroy his career, and the strand comprised of flashbacks to incidents that somehow relate to the screenplay he’s writing, i.e., the free associations of a man trapped in a situation of his own making. If there is a mystery in the film, it will matter only to those expecting a new twist in the argument about who deserves credit for writing Citizen Kane. “I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that’s his job,” says Mank before he hands over a script that’s double the final length but nevertheless would have earned him sole credit had Welles not been as much of a narcissistic prick as the character Mankiewicz tailored for him to play.

Fincher can turn a room with a bed, three doorways, a couple of blown-out windows, a dozen areas defined by sourced lighting, and enough cigarette smoke to produce instant stage four lung cancer into a fascinating visual puzzle, but Mank comes to life in the flashbacks, one or two of which might have been centerpieces for a very different, more politically incisive movie. Beginning with three glimpses of the writer’s sorry state in the few months before Welles hires him, they then are arranged in roughly chronological order from 1932 to 1937. The early scenes are over-the-top farcical: A bunch of literary wits improvising the outline of a monster movie in a story conference with David O. Selznick and “Joe” von Sternberg is as uncertain in tone as Mank’s drunken sailor walk—legs collapsing beneath swaggering shoulders. More assured and visually remarkable, the sequence in which the three central characters, Mank, Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s nearly lifelong lover Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), meet for the first time takes place on a huge outdoor “home movie” set where Hearst is helping Marion, a silent film comedian with Betty Boop eyes and lashes that would blind a mere human, ready her bleating Brooklynese for the talkies. Mank and Marion instantly recognize their shared cynicism about the fantasyland they occupy and how their survival depends on keeping its rulers amused. For the moment, Hearst turns his cobra eyes benevolently on them both. But two years later, tensions are more difficult to keep under wraps. At a party at San Simeon, where quips about Hitler are traded among the dozen most vocal guests as lightly as a badminton birdie (it’s the nimblest framing and editing in the film), the conversation turns even darker when a homegrown threat is raised. The muckraking journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, who has written scathingly about Hearst, is running for governor of California on an openly socialist platform. Financed by Hearst, MGM’s L.B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg use the studio’s actors and crews to produce fake newsreels about Sinclair, unintentionally inspired by Mank’s off-handed remark that if their movies can make people believe that King Kong is ten stories tall and Mary Pickford is a virgin at forty, they shouldn’t have a problem making California voters believe anything they want them to about Sinclair. No match for this embryonic form of Fox News propaganda—“It isn’t news and it isn’t real,” cautions a distraught Mank—Sinclair loses the election, and Mank’s loathing of Hearst begins to heat up until it explodes in the script for Citizen Kane, which in its three-hundred-page version must have had the explicit politics that are utterly lacking in Welles’s masterpiece.

But one more flashback is needed to show the depth of Mank’s anger and how easy it is for Hearst to humiliate him. At a costume dinner party at San Simeon, Mank shows up uninvited and completely plastered to regale the guests with a treatment for a contemporary Don Quixote modeled on the life of Hearst with Marion as his Dulcinea. There are so many problems with this scene that I felt pity for Oldman, one of the world’s most brilliant actors and who has to spew vitriol while struggling to stand on his feet for longer than it took Mark Rylance, playing an equally inebriated Richard III, to get through “Now is the winter of our discontent…” on Broadway. Mank doesn’t quit, even though he must know that no one in the room except Hearst (and very few Netflix viewers) could possibly understand what he’s going on about, although they are appropriately disgusted when he pukes on the floor. Having mastered the stoneface look that kills, Hearst says nothing throughout this impotent display. But what is most troubling about the scene is the suggestion that Welles’s most cherished unfinished film project—his adaptation of Quixote—originated with Mankiewicz. I am not a Welles scholar, but I’ve never seen any evidence that that was the case.

In one of many interviews preceding Mank’s December 4 release on Netflix, Fincher explained that he wanted his film to look and sound not like Kane itself, but like a film that could have been made alongside it. To that end, Mank has a monaural track that’s clipped of highs and lows and sounds as if it’s playing through analog speakers that a couple of cats used as scratching posts. The audio mix, including the Bernard Herrmann–esque score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is endlessly evocative of the period and the inchoate desires of the extremely talkative characters. The pictures, however, are less expressive. Mank doesn’t look like any 35-mm black-and-white film circa 1930–40 or like a digitized copy of such a film. It is its own animal, a tour-de-force registered in the middle of the gray scale with details, especially in the exteriors, so sharp they seem etched. It’s a fascinating surface for anyone attentive to how digital images are created in the camera and in post-production, but it’s strangely inert, a word I would never use to describe any other Fincher film. The high-contrast, expressionist cinematography of Welles’s movie suggests the hidden mysteries of consciousness itself. There’s nothing hidden in Mank—what we see is what we get, and that’s a pity since the subject of the film is the secret reservoir of creative freedom, enduring against the odds.

— Amy Taubin

Mank begins streaming on Netflix on December 4.